Eastern Europe Travelogue: 7 Countries May 24 – June 15, 2017

in Eastern Europe

Prague & Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

THURS., 25 – 28 MAY – ARRIVE IN PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC (PRAHA, CESKA REPUBLIKA IN CZECH)

We were met at the airport, driven in rush hour traffic to our Hotel (Ventana). Our concierge made dinner reservation at V Zatisi. After unpacking and freshening up, we walked about 10 minutes to the restaurant. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at V Zatisi, an upscale Bistro with innovative yet traditional Czech food with international cuisine.  Then we walked around a bit before returning to the cozy and quaint Hotel Ventana, on a small quiet street near the Clock Tower Square.  It is opposite one side of Tyn Church, which is near to many forms of public transportation and walking-minutes from all sights in Old Town, New Town, and across the Charles or other bridges to Prague Castle. 

FRI., 26 MAY – PRAGUE WALKING TOURS

Prague was the first of the many towns and cities we visited with pedestrian-only sections, in at least part, if not all of the central districts. This wandering-ambiance in these busy places is wonderful. Despite our timing of late May, in the so-called “shoulder” season, the city was busier than we expected, so we could only imagine the crowds and be grateful not to experience them during the summer-peak months.

City Walking Tour – We took a morning walk with a lovely young Czech woman named Albi who initially guided us through an overview of three of Prague’s main sections: Old Town, New Town, and Little Quarter. Old Town Square, with its well-preserved buildings, started as a market square in the 11th century then became the true center of Prague (aka Praha in Czech) in the 13th century when the Town Hall was built. Today, it is a combination of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau style buildings. Though quite touristy now, it’s still central to much of Prague’s daily life and is noted for its statue of Jan Hus, the 14th century religious reformer who symbolizes Czech nationalism and its eventual independence. The Square’s most famous feature is the Clock Tower, part of the Town Hall, with its multi-level astronomical and time clock faces as well as several moving figures, all of which are in motion at the top of every hour except 10pm to 9am (so locals can sleep!).

During the first 3-hours we were with Albi, we visited St. Tyn (pronounced “tin”), St. James, and St. Nicholas Churches; Kinsky Palace; and Municipal House, among other buildings. We walked down Celetna Street, the main shopping area since the 10th century!  We crossed the famous Charles Bridge with its many limestone statues along the way, most of which are darkened by the weather and their porous nature, on our way to the Little Quarter which is at the base of the hill upon which sits Prague Castle complex.

Albi dropped us at a nice lunch with a view of Charles Bridge along Vltava River called Hergetova Cihelna, a convenient cafe between our 2 half-day tours. We sat on the deck overlooking the sparkling Vltava River with a clear view of the charming, most-famous Prague bridge, the Charles.

Jewish Prague private walking tour through the aka Josefova section – After lunch, we toured the Jewish Quarter aka Ghetto, now also known as the Josefova section of Prague, where in the early 1200s all Jews in then Bohemia, Moravia and Sudetenland (now Czech Republic) were forced to move together. Though Josefova is small in size, it is a very powerful place to visit, especially if one considers that at some point, over 300,000 people lived their whole lives here. In 1930, there were over 350,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia; in 1945, 55,000; today, a little over 6,000 remain in the country—with approx. 1/3 living in Prague. It is where Frank Kafka was born (1883), lived and died (1924). Though he was never a successful writer during his brief life, on his deathbed, Kafka made his best friend Max Brod promise to destroy his writings. Despite his guilt, Brod smuggled Kafka’s brilliant works in a suitcase out of Prague, enabling the eventual publication and the world’s appreciation.

  • We briefly stopped at the Hebrew Clock which runs counter-clockwise. A clock with Roman numerals sits atop it.
  • The Pinkas Synagogue, the 2nd oldest in Prague has some prior buildings from 15th century but mostly was built in 16th). In the museum part of the Pinkas were preserved many ceremonial elements of the Jewish faith in Prague, as well as stories of noted Jews who impacted their community, including teaching and preserving the art of children of this ghetto and from the nearby concentration camps. Also part of the Jewish Museum is a memorial for Prague Holocaust deaths. 80,000 names, birth dates and dates of going to the camps.  As visitors or research determines more names than originally placed on the walls, a new section in the memorial is added, which keeps the Holocaust alive in a sad way.
  • The New-Old Synagogue, is the oldest in Prague and the oldest still active in Europe, was built in the early 13th Both are in a simple Gothic style
  • The Spanish Synagogue has the more elaborate, Moorish flavor, influence by the Sephardic Jews and their synagogues in other southern-Europe countries.
  • The Ceremonial Hall houses a permanent exhibition outlining the Jewish Burial Society that provides burial preparation to Jews who cannot afford it. It was founded by Rabbi Eliezar Ashkenazi in 1564 to support the Prague ghetto.
  • The Jewish Cemetery in the ghetto is a small field bounded by walkways then walls around the perimeters, yet it is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and 1 of the oldest, with the earliest tombstone dating 1439 among the 12,000 onsite. To date research has shown there are 12 layers of buried people—there may be more but no further digging is allowed. It is a very meaningful experience to circle the graveyard and note the names and dates.
  • 2 interesting factoids learned here:
    • The Jewish custom of leaving stones on family or friends’ headstones when visiting a cemetery is from ancient burial traditions. This is a “translation” or remnant from when Jews) and others) were in the desert or dry places, they were buried on top of the ground, covered with stones to prevent damage from weather or animals.
    • Golem, the clay monster who protected and helped the Jews of Prague, was created by Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague.

After a delightfull day-long tour, we freshened up at our hotel and the concierge booked a dinner for us at Parnas, about a 25-minute walk along the Vltava River. The food was fine but the best part was the view of the Prague Castle atop the hill across the river as well as the famous Charles Bridge with its many gilded statues.  On our way back to the hotel, we circuitously explored the old town then shared dessert at Café Mozart–“Mozartino” cake, layers of nougat, chocolate, vanilla cake and enrobed by thick chocolate frosting. Mmmmm.

 

SAT., 27 MAY  – PRAGUE CASTLE, MUNICIPAL HOUSE, BLACK POWDER TOWER AND CZECH BEER & TAPAS TOUR

Prague Castle – We had canceled the Sat. morning group tour of “Communism & Nuclear Bunkers” so we could spend time at Prague Castle. We walked for about a mile, crossing the Vltava River over the Charles Bridge, to catch a tram up the hill to the Prague Castle stop.  We entered through a side gate then waited about 20 minutes in line to buy tickets to visit the large complex of buildings. Even with the Rick Steves’ guide book, it was confusing to get our bearings so Rick ended up buying another guide book which had a better map and orientation.  We started our tour in the 2nd courtyard but decided to go back to the main Castle Square courtyard book-ended by its heroic Gates of the Giants and Martyas (Matthias) Gate. However, moments after we arrived, soldiers started closing this courtyard. Since the Czech President and some of his administration work there, it must have been a political celebrity who was entering. So, we only viewed the Archbishop’s and Schwazenberg Palaces briefly before being herded back through the Matyas gate. The New Palace and connected buildings were built over many centuries. The very oldest, archeologically-proven part was built in 920 A.D. We tried twice to visit the famous St. Vitus Cathedral, but the line into it was at least 30-minutes long both times. I’m sure it was as lovely as Rick Steves declared, but we didn’t feel too bad skipping “ABC” (from our trips to England, Scotland then France: another bloody cathedral/church/castle/chateau). We viewed the widely-varied exteriors of several buildings, then toured the inside of St. George’s Basilica, with the oldest part built in the late 900s inside a more modern structure (1300s). We also toured inside the Royal Palace. While both were lovely, they were “ABC” as well. We spent about 30 minutes walking through a museum-like building with a multi-media exhibit called “The Story of Prague Castle,” describing the earliest “founding” in the early 900s to today. Our last stop in the castle complex was “Golden Lane,” which was a street of preserved homes of servants and vendors” from hundreds of years ago and apparently occupied up to World War II. Supposedly Franz Kafka lived in one from 1916 to 1917. Now they house gift shops and a few reproductions of life in the “olden days.” We departed Prague Castle down the hill along a vineyard and several supposedly good restaurants and walked all the way back to our hotel.

Black Powder Gate & Municipal House – After a quick break at our hotel, we walked once again through the 500-year old Black Powder Gate that is mostly blackened sandstone (from pollution). However, you can distinguish the many statues because each of them has a gold “accessory” attached, e.g., a sword or orb. Once through the gate, there’s another open square, featuring the Municipal House.  Just over 100 years old, the exterior and interior exhibit many features typical of Art Nouveau architecture across Prague, including pink granite, ceramic insets in the walls, patterns with layers, and lighting fixtures. It was worth a brief tour of the inside and the notable front of the building. 

Café Mozart’s ground floor dessert section is where we stopped after our walking to and from Prague Castle, this time for gelato.

Urban Adventures Beer & Czech Tapas Tour – Let’s start with the fact that Czechs drink approx. 140 liters of beer per person annually, including in the count, children and people who don’t drink. And Czechs call beer their liquid bread, which they love. Then add a long-standing tradition of Pilsner (Urquell) and Lager (Budvar, the original Budweiser). With a group of ten, we visited four different brew-pubs with Lucas, who guided us on the wide variety of beers that were available at each place—literally this was a 4-hour Czech cultural experience! “Czech tapas” really were pub snacks which were all quite tasty, also different at each place. When you want Pilsner beer, it is always Pilsner Urquell, the first Pilsner brewed in Bohemia/Moravia now Czech Republic. And Budvar is the original “Budweiser” which naming rights are still being fought after 200 years! Now darker beer has become trendy here so more micro-breweries are creating interesting versions, including “APA” aka IPA in U.S., stouts, and a smoky dark beer.  This fun tour was very well-orchestrated, conducted by a knowledgeable young man (an engineering graduate who preferred using his beer knowledge to a “regular” job!).

 

SUN., 28 MAY – 2 HOUR DRIVE TO/FROM KARLOVY VARY AKA CARLSBAD SPA TOWN

The charming “spa” town of Karlovy Vary aka Karlsbad was originally founded by King Charles IV (Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia) when during a stag hunt, he noted a hot spring. In 1370-ish, he built his palace which burned down twice and was eventually left in 1700s. There are streets, particularly along the Ohre River promenades, lined with gorgeous row-houses in Art Nouveau styles.  Thanks to some Russian (oligarchs?), they have been restored to their former glory, though they stand empty most of the year.  Karlsbad is best known for its many “fountains” (aka spas) flowing with the mineral & element-filled water at varying temperatures. The fountains’ water can range from 30 to 72o C, and are generally found along, covered, fancy walkways called “Colonnades.

“Taking the Waters” – With our guide (a cute grandma-type woman named Elaishka), we visited several colonnades including:  Vridelni Kolonada, Hot Spring Colonnade with the first-known geyser, and Mill Colonnade. At the latter, I tasted four different fountains’ waters, using a traditional cup that I bought. It is shaped like a little open teapot, through which spout you suck the water. The “waters” have healing powers but can also cause gastric distress so I limited my consumption to maybe 1/3 cup!  Many famous leaders, aristocracy, and celebrities have visited starting with King Charles IV. Peter the Great lived here for a year in a lovely home decorated with colorful ceramic tiles. Beethoven played, Dvorak wrote and conducted his works, and many other artists visited. We had a light $50 lunch at the Grand Hotel Pupp, once the largest hotel in Europe and completely renovated (started in 1701 & most recent addition in 1936), which is elegant and expensive. On the pavement out front are some brass plaques with names of celebrities from the last 100 years, including actors like Gregory Peck and Danny Devito and politicians like the first president post-Communism, Vaclav Havel, all of whom attended an annual international film festival. This delightful city (pop. 50,000 including outskirts) was a wonderful trip out of Prague.

Karlovy Vary spa wafers are a traditional and very popular snack. Their first incarnation, which differed greatly from today’s wafers, was from before 1800; cooks would prepare wafers sprinkled with sugar for spa guests of the day. Later the wafers were layered on top of one other and spices were added; these, in combination with the Karlovy Vary spring water and salt, give the wafers a distinctive flavor. The first bakery to specialize in spa wafers opened in 1867, and since that time these biscuits have enjoyed huge popularity, becoming a favorite snack for those strolling the spa promenades, as a souvenir from Karlovy Vary and as a gift for friends and family back home. Karlovy Vary wafers are often flavored with chocolate and a vanilla and hazel nut mix. They are just as good hot as cold and they’ve even become popular as small triangular biscuits.

Czech Food! – In our 4 days in Prague, Czech food was focused on meat—duck, pork knee, beef short ribs, etc.–and starches—dumplings, potato croquettes, risotto, bread—with an occasional veggie like cabbage, carrots, or beans. Imagine a hunk of roasted pork on a long bone, that fills a plate–that’s pork knee!  Casserol Restaurant prepared and presented traditional Czech food in a lighter style and smaller size.  My pork knee filled only the center of the plate, with an onion and fruity sauce to cut the meat’s fattiness.

 

MON., 29 MAY – PRAGUE TO VIENNA TO BUDAPEST

Vienna—Beautiful Architecture – We were picked up by Stan who had also transported us to our hotel from Prague airport. With traffic, it took us 4 hours to reach Vienna at about 2:15. Stan dropped us off near the Opera House, handed us a city map and said he’d meet us back here at 4:15 but later if we desire. The large map in German/Austrian only showed the streets on one side and descriptions of what we were trying to view were on the other. He had circled 2 locations that he thought we should see but that was it.  I didn’t expect a private tour but was given the impression from exchange of emails that our English-speaking driver would at least give us some guidance. Unhappily he left so we went in the direction of one “circle.”

We stopped to look at the exterior of the Opera House then headed toward a place to eat. I recognized that the Sacher Hotel was likely to be the place where the Sacher Torte cake was invented, so we stopped there to have a snack. I had a Sacher Torte there, which was just ok, a bit dry, and Rick ate what was like a chocolate molten cake, which was tastier.

It became obvious very quickly that it was impossible to read the minimal description while trying to use the street map, so Rick traced on the map where we were walking so that later, we could note what we had seen. The buildings’ names were in Austrian so even those were only guess-able. My overall impression was that the Hapbsburgs’ Beaux Artes and Art Nouveau styles’ architects and designers “frosted” buildings with 5 times as many lacy accessories, statues, urns, carvings, ceramics as needed! That is my best description of Vienna.

 

MON., 29 MAY – BUDAPEST

Budapest is formerly 3 cities—Buda, Pest and Obuda plus Margot island—and is divided by the Danube River which flows for 3,000 km through multiple countries to the Black Sea. We were driven to our beautiful hotel, Gresham Palace Four Seasons and had a nice dinner. Then walking across the street, we strolled along the Danube up to the Chain Bridge where we stopped just beyond the lion statues to see the Buda side and to a lesser extent the Pest side, flooded with lights, reflected in the river.

Gresham Palace Four Seasons – It turns out that this gorgeous Art Nouveau hotel is on Rick Steves’ list of places to visit in Budapest! The interior has many glass-domed ceilings; the lobby has gorgeous bouquets of colorful flowers (purple hydrangeas with other purple flowers during our stay); and lots of dark wood but light and airy feeling throughout.  The palace was built by Mr. Gresham who founded the London Stock Exchange, so money was no object. When we were registering, the desk manager said that we could upgrade (not for free!) our room to a “junior suite.” So, we indulged in the 25’ x 30’ room plus huge bathroom and hallway, with luxurious appointments!  It had a view of the famous Chain Bridge (the 1st connecting the Pest with Buda across the Danube River), the Palace, and the Danube River.

On the first floor of the gorgeous Gresham Palace Four Seasons hotel, is the lovely Art Nouveau style Kollazs restaurant with views of the Palace on top of the hill, the Chain Bridge, and if facing the side street, St. Istvan’s (Stephen) Basilica. The food is a mixture of Hungarian and “continental” that is tasty and well-presented by solicitous and knowledgeable staff. We had traditional Goulash (soup, not stew) and Beef Ribs, both of which were delicious and for meat-lovers (large amounts of protein!). We also had the widely-varied and fabulous breakfast buffet there for the next three mornings.

 

TUES., 30 MAY – PRIVATE WALKING TOURS OF BUDAPEST & JEWISH SECTION THEN SZECHNYI BATHS

Budapest Private Walking Tours  – Our delightful guide for the next 1.5 days (and many walking miles!) was Gabriella, a red-haired, enthusiastic, very knowledgeable Budapest resident.  She told us many different historical aspects of the areas we toured. On Day 1, she gave us the overall city view as well as the Jewish ghetto tour.

It is funny/odd, that despite Prague, Vienna, and Budapest being big, beautiful cities, I don’t have strong memories of any of the cities’ general sights during the overview tours, except for the Parliament in Budapest.  These cities’ architectural styles, for the most part, were similar because they were most recently part of the Habsburg Empire prior to World War I. During World War II, they became part of Nazi Germany. After World War II, except for Vienna, they were integrated into the Soviet Bloc–traces of their ugly concrete-block buildings remain). Prague, Vienna and Budapest blend together in my mind—except for the Budapest Parliament from our separate guided tour.

Rather it was the Jewish sections of both Prague and Budapest that I remember most clearly. I think it was because of my emotional engagement in these.  As Gabriella walked us through the Jewish section, she was engaged, positive and knowledgeable about Judaism, and Zionism. In my mind, she represents the more open-minded, new generations of Hungarians vs. the prior ones who were known for being anti-Semitic.

Our Budapest overview tour included an overview of Hungarian history and culture which included a visit to Heroes’ Square, the City Park, inner Pest (the Old Town), Opera House, Andrassy Avenue, St. Stephen Basilica, Chain Bridge, Buda Castle District, Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, Vajdahunyad Palace (Transylvanian-style, inside City Park, used as event hall).  A few places stood out:

  • The Great Market Hall is not a former railway station though it looks like one. On multiple floors it has meats, cheeses, fish, and produce to which Gabriella introduced us to many tastes.
  • Castle hill has 2 churches: Matthias (originally Romanesque in 1015) and Fisherman’s Bastion (~1902). Fisherman’s has 7 towers representing the 7 tribes of the Magyars who founded Hungary.
  • The statue of Imre Nagy, who was the Communist who “led” 1956 uprising to create a “middle way” between Russian Communism and the rest of Europe. This middle way did eventually lead to  so-called “goulash communism” after his death in 1959.
  • The Chain Bridge is the first built between the two original cities of Buda & Pest, given as a gift by a local nobleman. Since all bridges here had been severely damaged or destroyed during the many wars of the 20th century, standing in the middle of the Chain Bridge gives a great perspective on this cities re-building and glory, especially if you are not going on a Danube cruise. 

The Jewish Section of Budapest – This is a somewhat ironic place, reflecting the on-again-off-again Hungarian attitude toward the Jews. In early 20th century, 23% of Budapest’s population was Jewish. The Habsburg Kings, particularly Franz Josef, were quite tolerant. The Hungarian Jews here believed themselves to be assimilated into the local culture, and were Hungarian patriots, then Jews. However, Hungarians from the rural areas who moved into the cities were rabidly anti-Semitic and mistreated Jews even before the Nazis. With “The Arrow Cross” puppet Nazi government in place, 600,000 Jews were ushered into concentration camps early in World War II. So much for assimilation and acceptance…

The poignant Shoes along the Danube was developed by a post-Communist artist to commemorate where some Jews were quickly killed (no time to send them to concentration camps) by The Arrow Cross. These thugs lined up 50 Jews on this spot and made them take off shoes & valuables. Some were tied together by rope so that when bullets were running low, one was shot one and all were pushed into the river to drown.  The artist laid out preserved shoes, suitcases, etc. from that era, then attached them to the stone along the river bank.

Great Synagogue of Budapest – It was built mid-19th century during a time when Jews were first Hungarians and patriots, then Jews. They felt they were and wanted to be integrated into the main society, despite a rocky history. The Great Synagogue, although serving the Orthodox community, combines a Moorish- and church-style, not typical of a European Synagogue. Its bimah and holy ark are at one end rather than the in the sanctuary’s center. Both the exterior as well as its beautiful, intricately decorated interior were restored starting in the early 1990s after the fall of Communism. There’s a wonderful Jewish museum attached with many family and religious artifacts, as well as a memorial to all the Jews who fought for Hungary during major wars. Also, there is a unique metallic “willow tree” that is an upside-down Menorah with leaves that can be engraved with names of missing/dead Jews from the Holocaust. The tree is also the symbolic resting place for Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who save 1,000s of Jews but disappeared into a Russian gulag before the end of WW2.

Orthodox Synagogue – Kazinczy – This is Budapest’s 2nd largest synagogue, founded in the early 20th century by Orthodox Jews who were offended by the Christian-like ambiance in the Great Synagogue. It is also intricately, colorfully decorated and restored post-Communism (completed 2006). 

“Reform” Synagogue at Rumbach Street was built by the Austrian architect Otto Wagner in the late 19th century with an elaborately designed exterior and a Moorish-style interior. It remains closed in hope of restoration by some TBD generous donors.

Flodni Cake at Rachel’s tiny bakery –  Thin top layer of crispy cake, then layers of poppy seed, apple, walnuts, and maybe prune. Classic Hungarian (Jewish) dessert.

Szechenyi Baths – Unique Budapest Experience to Soak with Locals in Huge Thermal-Spring Pools – In the middle of the City Park is the largest of the many thermal bath houses in Budapest—and one of the largest in Europe. Though Gellert Baths may be more upscale and Rudas Baths, more Turkish, the Szechenyi Baths are where the locals and families go to swim in the naturally warm water, with pools kept at different warm temperatures (cooler than a typical “hot tub”). It has three large exterior baths and over 10 interior baths. This is not counting those in separate rooms “prescribed by a doctor for special illnesses” plus hundreds of lockers and small “cabins” for changing. It feels as though there is an acre of building with pools! As with most Europeans, both the men and women don’t care what their bodies look like, so they wear Speedos and bikinis. Likely it’s my American prudishness, but the cabins and facilities didn’t look pristine and I had a hard time looking at really fat and/or hairy bodies in bikinis or speedos swimming near me. The cabins were so tiny that Rick and I had to dress sequentially. I’m glad I had the unique-to-Budapest experience, but once was enough. We had dinner that night at Innio, a casual wine bistro with good goulash, but mostly focused on beer, wine and small plates.

 

WED., 31 MAY – TOUR OF GREAT MARKET HALL, PARLIAMENT, EVENING DANUBE CRUISE

Great Market Hall Tour (foods) & Hold Street Gourmet Market (cafes & bistros) – At 10am, Gabriella headed us to the Great Market Hall which looked like a huge train station with its iron structure and glass ceilings on multiple stories.  We toured each level, tasting food at different stops, with the first food “Langos” (LAN-gosh) which is a small fried flat-ish circular dough, covered with sour cream then shredded mild cheese. Next, we were offered different kinds of dried meat/salamis, then pickles of many different vegetables and fruit. There were jars with stuffed, pickled peppers with faces made from spices and small pieces of pepper. We had eaten a large breakfast because I really hadn’t planned that this might be a tasting not just observing experience, so sadly, we didn’t really eat much except a bit of Langos and pickles. We wrapped the dried meat to take with us, but couldn’t even try the cheese.  Then we walked to the newer Hold Street Gourmet Market, another nearby building that housed more modern cafes where she wanted us to have lunch.  Unfortunately, still full from breakfast, we instead, went to Liberte Café where we just enjoyed dessert and people-watched from this corner of busy central Pest.

Hungarian Parliament – Beautiful inside & outside – A highlight of our time in Budapest was the tour of the Hungarian Parliament building. Though completed in the early 20th century, it is a prime example of the look and feel of the Habsburg Empire style. The exterior is gorgeous, looking impressive adjacent to the Danube. The interior is truly amazing which can only be seen by booking a tour. It is worth being guided through the hallways, huge rooms, etc. to see the glory of this building.

Nighttime Boat Cruise on the Danube is Lovely – Our daughter had loved cruising on the Danube at night in Budapest. After pizza near the hotel, we boarded a 9pm cruise which offered a drink and headphones with an English translation of what we were seeing.  Budapest along the Danube is glorious because so many of the well-known sights are lighted up beautifully. Particularly lovely is the Parliament.

 

16 DAYS IN CROATIA, SLOVENIA + DAY TRIPS TO MONTENEGRO & BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA 

THURS., 1 JUNE – DRIVE FROM BUDAPEST TO ZAGREB, CROATIA (4 hours)

After being driven by a JayWay agent from Budapest, we arrived in Zagreb at Hotel Dubrovnik, a nice “holiday-Inn-like hotel, in Zagreb’s downtown pedestrian mall.  Because of this pedestrian mall, we had to walk our suitcases from the tiny parking lot to the lobby. Lidija, the JayWay regional manager, waited while we checked in and freshened up then walked us to a nearby tiny, traditional restaurant. She ordered a traditional northern Croatian “snack” often associated with the Zagreb area, called Strukli (shtrook-ly), consisting of a dough and various fillings, particularly cheese.  It reminded me of the Langos we tried at the Great Market Hall in Budapest. While we waited, she returned to the hotel to wait for then guide Mark and Roberta back to us there. We all had Strukli, learned about what was happening over the next few days, received the vouchers we needed, as well as a cell phone programmed with her phone number for questions and emergencies.

After that filling snack, we walked back to our hotel and browsed the pedestrian mall a bit. After unpacking and relaxing for a while, we walked up from our hotel into the Old Town area to a traditional, but lively restaurant called Trilogija (aka Trilogy). Recommended by our hotel as our intro to Croatian food, it was very good. We all went to bed relatively early.

FRI., 2 JUNE – PRIVATE WALKING TOUR OF ZAGREB

Our guide, a local young woman, met us at 9:30 at our hotel, then guided us for the next 1.5 or so hours to Upper Town (Gradec), Kaptol, St. Mark’s Church as well as the Parliament and Government Buildings. We rode the funicular to the top of the hill where our tour eventually ended. While I’m sure the Zagreb is a good capital for Croatia, there’s not much to do as a tourist so 2 hours is plenty. The more interesting sites:

  • Mark’s Church in St. Mark’s Square has a gorgeous tile roof with the symbols of northern Croatia, a checkerboard and Dalmatian Coast, 3 lions & marten aka “Kuna” which is the name of the Croatian currency.
  • Nikola Tesla = Serbo-American inventor of AC current among many other electrical ideas and creations. Tesla remains the subject of fascination for Croats and Serbs alike (he is one of the few historical figures whose legacy they share), and Tesla-related museum displays in Zagreb, Belgrade and his home village of Smiljan are becoming ever more popular.
  • Near the top of the hill where the funicular dropped us, is the Museum of Broken Relationships, an intriguing concept with often odd stories. If you have completed an overview tour of Zagreb, and find yourself in this area, the funny museum was intriguing enough for us to pay money and spend 30 – 45 minutes. The idea is that people, who for various reasons are no longer in relationships, provide a short story of their former relationship with a memento that symbolized it, e.g., a shoe that was thrown at a former lover or a stuffed animal that was given by a beloved friend. The stories are often odd, sometimes amusing, or downright strange.
  • Lunch was ice cream & pastries.

Around 4:00pm, Mitja (mitt-ya) drove us (approx. 2 hr.) to Ljubljana then dropped us at Antiq Palace Hotel a beautiful converted mansion.  The overall facilities are 4-star because of the charming building and how well-they’ve converted the huge rooms with gorgeous floors.  BUT the details of the rooms were 3-star, e.g., a toilet in the “outer” room of our suite about 25 feet away from the main bathroom, light fixtures that weren’t quite working, and the included breakfast was fine but not 4-star.

Our concierge recommended two restaurants, Valvas’or and Julijas, near each other on the main shopping/strolling street. Since the latter was booked for that night, we went to Valvas’or, which was excellent for both meats and fish—innovative traditional Slovenian food.

 

SAT., 3 JUNE –LJUBLJANA

Ljubljana is a totally charming small city—capital of Slovenia–and its largest city at under 300,000 residents.  The whole country’s population is only 2 million but of the former Yugoslavia countries, it was the first to leave and is the most successful.

Ljubljana Food Tour worthy of 5-stars – We had a relaxing morning then at noon joined our Food Tour Guide, Danijel Osmanagić, on a several-hour dining experience.  We met in in front of the Prešeren monument (he is a historically important figure in Slovenia) on Prešeren Square at 12:00 pm and went to several locations including: Ljubljana Green Market; food shops; and several traditional restaurants that showcased many of the notable types of food in Ljubljana. We ate a wide variety of foods and drank lots of wine and beer at 6 wonderful restaurants. The octopus at the Most (Bridge) restaurant was the best I’ve ever had!  We also stopped at Honey House and a salt shop with salt mined/processed in nearby Iran (chocolate with sea salt, yum). Danijel himself was a highlight. In his excellent English, he not only gave us insight into the food and drink, but what it is like as an educated young person to try to find work and live in Slovenia.  He also spoke about his life and his understanding of his city and region. Danijel emailed us notes about our tour:

  • Restaurant Most (Bridge)“Most plate (octopus salad and beef carpaccio)” and white Malvazija wine from Slovenian seaside wine region.
  • Stroll through a Covered Market – We tried homemade goat cheese and Slovene bread.
  • Restaurant Sokol (Falcon) – traditional Slovenian restaurant with Slovene food and drinks. We tried a Slovene delicacy Carniola sausage (pork sausage with bacon) with horseradish and mustard and crushed potatoes, pork rind, turnip and cabbage. Carniola was an administrative unit within Habsburg and later Austria-Hungary Empire, with Ljubljana being its capital. You also tried Sokol homemade beer.
  • Gujžina-soul of Pannonia – they serve food from the Prekmurje region – North-East part of the country, which was in the past under Hungarian administration (river Mura being the border between two entities in the empire). You had Bujta Repa, a dense soup with turnip, onions, millet, garlic and pork meat. We also had white semi dry wine Green Slivanec from Prekmurje region.
  • Recipe – 1kg pickled grated turnip, 1.5 kg loin of pork, 250 g millet groats, 100 g fat, 50g flour, 5 cloves garlic, 1 onion, salt, 100 ml sour cream. Boil the pork with turnip in water. When turnip is almost done, add the washed millet groats and boil. Make a roux from the fat and flour, then stir in the chopped onions and garlic. Add it to the turnip and groats, let it come to the boil. Add sour cream and salt to taste. When the turnip and pork soften, remove the pork and cut it into slices. Put the cooked turnip into a bowl and place the slices of pork on top. Serve as a main dish.
  • Honey House – sampling of different types of honey and honey liqueur. Slovenia has a long tradition of honey making. It all started back in 18th century in Majolica, town north-west of Ljubljana, near Bled. honeyhouse.si
  • Piranske Soline – Piran is a town on the Slovenian coast in Istria, salt is being produced there all the way since the Middle ages. You tried chocolate with salt.
  • Druga violina – Second violin – nonprofit restaurant near the Music academy. We tried Žlikrofi, kind with of Slovene ravioli (dumplings). Ours were filled with potatoes and had mushroom sauce on the top. In the past it was a food for miners in the town of Idrija (West from Ljubljana). You also had Refošk red wine from the seaside region (Slovene Littoral).
  • Restaurant Šestica (Restaurant Six) – restaurant founded in year 1776. We ate traditional dessert Prekmurska gibanica. Prekmurska gibanica (Prekmurian layer cake) is a type of gibanica or layered cake. It contains poppy seeds, walnuts, apples, raisins and ricotta fillings. Although native to Prekmurje, it has achieved the status of a national specialty of Slovenia. The name gibanica comes from dialectical expression güba and in this case refers to a fold.

Still Fri., 3 June – Roberta and I took the Funicular up to Ljubljana Castle, while Rick and Mark went back to the hotel to relax.  We waited in a long line for the ride up to the top of a forested mountain overlooking the city.  The 4 of us had hoped to have dinner here but the whole facility was being readied for a wedding that night, so Ro and I toured around on our own. Originally the castle was a fortress from the 11th century, re-built in the 12th, overhauled in the 15th and expanded with the many current buildings in the 16th and 17th centuries. While the buildings are typical of many other castles from that era, the view from the top is spectacular. Appropriately, the castle is the symbol on Ljubljana’s flag along with a dragon on top.

Valvas’or Delicious food and environment – We were able to get a last-minute reservation to this highly recommended restaurant. We had one of the best meals in our two weeks in Slovenia and Croatia. Food is a mix of local seafood, some pasta to reflect the city’s Italian connection, as well as local meat dishes, all prepared in a sophisticated yet Slovenian style.

 

SUN., 4 JUNE – LJUBLJANA TO BLED AND BOHINJ LAKES (8 hours)

Highlights:  Bled Castle, Bled Island, Lake Bled, Parish Church of St. Martin, Lake Bohinj

Lake Bled (“blayd”)  – is a gorgeous lake which is emerald-colored due to copper in the soil that slides into it. It is lovely to walk around or just contemplate nature. Surrounded by forests and nearby mountains, Lake Bled is a must-see if you are in or close to Slovenia.

Fairy-Tale Pretty Bled Island – is great to look at from the distance in the middle of gorgeous Lake Bled and is worth a brief trip by boat. There is not much to see or do so don’t spend a lot of time. Especially don’t bother with the disappointing St. Martin’s Church: not much there inside and the exterior is nothing special. Skip the church, stay on the boat or take the next one back. 

Bled Castle is worth a brief visit –  This Castle had its 1,000-year anniversary in 2011! It’s beautiful to look at on its promontory, worth touring inside briefly but if you’ve seen lots of castle, it’s worth viewing the castle from below and worth looking at Lake Bled from its wall.

Lake Bohinj and Mount Vogel  – are quite lovely too, with gorgeous mountains plunging to the edge of this gorgeous alpine lake. If you are going to see Lake Bled, this is worth an additional stop, as is Mount Vogel.  Mt. Vogel is a ski area above Lake Bohinj with a tram runs all year long.  The views of lake and Julian Alps from there are stunning.

Hotel Park’s special cream cake “Blejska Kremna Rezina” – is associated with the Hotel Park on the edge of Lake Bled, but probably originated in Germany.  There are similar versions found in other nearby countries, but it seems to be most famous here.  The original cake has a crisp pastry top and bottom with a thick layer of custard between and is coated with powdered sugar.  I had the original version, which was the tastiest vs. the one with chocolate filling that Rick had.

Julija Restauranthas great food in lovely ambiance and was highly recommended by our concierge who made reservations for the next day (not available that night!). We had one of the best meals on our trip in Slovenia and Croatia! Food is a mix of local seafood, some pasta to reflect the city’s Italian connection, as well as local meat dishes, all prepared in a sophisticated yet Slovenian style. Sit outside for people-watching.

 

MON., 5 JUNE – LJUBLJANA TO ROVINJ WITH STOP AT POSTOJNA CAVES AND PREDJAMA CASTLE 

Mitja picked us up at 9:00 am to drive us to Rovinj, with stops in Postojna cave and Predjama castle. We were expected to arrive in Rovinj in the afternoon.

Postojna Caves Amaze Even if You Have Visited Tourist Caverns Before – In 1819, Archduke Ferdinand visited the caves. Thus  they became officially known as a tourist destination. Čeč became the first official tourist guide for the caves when the caves were opened to the public. Electric lighting was added in 1884, preceding even Ljubljana,  and further enhanced the cave system’s popularity.

These connected caves plow into the earth for 15 miles (24km). I’ve seen stalagmites and stalactites in caves in the U.S. and China, and nothing compares. You are taken by open rail cars over 2 miles in, then you are guided (with a huge group) over fairly strenuous up-and-down, slippery paths for another 1.5 miles to several different colored caverns with formations I’d never seen before.  Though the Pivka river runs a level below where the tours go, only researchers and divers are allowed to explore. Apparently, there is an endemic Troglodyte fish called Olm which has very limited breeding so it was global news when 22 eggs hatched in 2016.

Predjama Castle – Built into a Mountain – This Renaissance castle’s claim to fame is that it is literally built into a mountainside, which makes for a dramatic picture.  Originally started in the Gothic style in the 13th century, it was supposedly the hiding place of a knight fleeing the Habsburg Empire in the 15th century which laid siege to Predjama.  The knight enlarged an escape route near the top of the cliff so he could keep up supplies. After the knight was killed, an Austrian noble family then renovated the castle into its Renaissance-style in the 16th century.  Not much to see inside, but worth a trip to see this castle, especially if visiting Postojna Caves. 

Rovinj Private Walking Tour (2 hrs) in afternoon with Maslinka

Highlights / what’s covered – Rovinj Old Town, City Palace, The Town Clock, The Balbi’s Arch, St. Euphemia Church.  After our city tour, we finally got into our hotel.

The northwestern section of Croatia, called Istria, contains the Julian Alps are the southern-most portion of the European Alps. This area offers a beautiful bay, good wine, and amazing Roman ruins. Because over the centuries, it has been part of Italy, many words are Italian and sights have Italian names.  Istria is not far from Trieste, Italy (Trst in Croatian) and was conquered by the Venetians. Istria’s long wine history reflects that.

From 5th – 7th June, our accommodation was in Rovinj, at Hotel Monte Mulini, a modern resort hotel with a great view of the Istrian bay as well as the Golden Cape Nature Park.  It is a lovely relaxing place, with a delicious breakfast. Also, it is not a long drive to the amazing Roman ruins in Pula.  We had a nice dinner in the Monte Mulini dining room, which allowed us to rest rather than walk back into town.

 

TUES., 6 JUNE – PRIVATE ROVINJ AND ISTRIA TOUR   

Highlights:  Motovun, Groznjan, & Pula guided by Maslinka again and driver (8 hrs).

Motovun/Montona is a medieval town that grew up on the site of an ancient city called Castellieri. It is situated on a hill, 886 feet above sea level, with houses scattered all over the hill. On the inner walls are several coats-of-arms of different Motovun/Montona ruling families and two gravestones of Roman inhabitants (dating from the 1st century).  The river Mirna or Quieto river flows below the hill and on the other side of the river there is the famous Motovun/Montona forest, an area of about 4 square miles in the valley of the river Mirna, of which 690 acres are specially protected. This area differs completely not only from the nearby forests, but also from those of the entire surrounding karst region because it is rich with wild life. Also its moist soil successfully grows the prized-black-and-white truffles (Tuber magnatum). Since this fungus grows underground, it is gathered with the aid of specially trained dogs–no longer pigs who also enjoy eating the truffles.

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the town belonged to the Bishop of Parenzo/Poreč. From 1278, it was taken over by Venice and surrounded by solid walls are still intact today; and used as a walkway with unique views over the four corners of Istria. All three parts of the town are connected by a system of internal and external fortifications with towers and city gates containing elements of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles, built between the 14th and 17th centuries. It is a typical example of Venetian colonial architecture.

We saw the new, bright red roof tiles which replaced old roofs’ multi-color tiles due to damage from earthquakes and wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Groznjan is another lovely old hill town, which has been “owned” by the Romans, Venetians, Habsburgs, Yugoslavia and now Croatia. It is known as an artists’ colony with a music festivals, artist galleries, good food and wine.  We sampled some really good grappa (never thought I’d ever describe grappa as good!): Grappa with honey; Grappa with Mistletoe; Grappa with grape leaves and almonds; and a similar but different fortified wine called Teranin, made from Teran grapes.

Pula is Istria’s busiest port and its largest city, but is also home to wonderful Roman ruins, some of the best in Europe. Most outstanding is the (exterior at least) Pula Arena or Coliseum, the sixth-largest Roman amphitheater and one of the best preserved anywhere, built in 27 BCE. Over the centuries, local builders have “re-purposed” virtually all the stones (for houses and other structures) in the Coliseum’s interior. But the exterior and the underground rooms for the gladiators, entertainment, animals, etc. are quite beautiful. Walking in those lower rooms, you see many amphorae (clay storage jugs) and other pieces of Roman equipment that have been found on land or in the Adriatic nearby. Along with the Roman Arena, there’s also the Temple of Augustus in the Forum, the Arch of Sergius, and a preserved Roman floor mosaic.

Dinner at Restaurant Puntalina was highly recommended by our local tour guide. We walked in at the last minute, without reservations, but the husband/wife owners accommodated us after a little while. This lovely, seaside restaurant is multi-floored but small with a terrace right above the Adriatic. We ate inside, looking at the sea-blue-washed walls and peeking out at the sea. Our fish dinners were fresh, simply prepared, and delicious. The owners were delightful and clearly were passionate about their food and restaurant.

 

WED., 7 JUNE – ROVINJ TO SPLIT WITH STOP IN PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK

Plitvice Lakes National Park – Waterfalls, cascades, gorges–a natural water wonderland. It took us at least 4 hours to trek the park’s wooden boardwalk through / near waterfalls, cascades, gorges, and narrow canyons with water roaring or trickling or plunging almost everywhere you look.  We started at crowded Entrance #1, but taking the trail from there to where you can climb to the higher lakes makes the most sense. Though we could have taken a tram at Station 3, we walked back. A must-do if in Croatia!

Eventually we arrived in Split at Palace Judita Heritage Hotel where we stayed from 7th – 9th June.  Off the main square, go through a small entrance behind the Café Palace Judita into a tiny courtyard with a small bar and a few tables, walk up the steps and enter a cozy, lobby of an old Palace, lovingly and well-converted into a hotel.  If Andres registers you and shows you around, you’ll be off to a great start. The rooms are spacious. Even though some rooms face the busy main square (with fully open the windows you’ll hear the boisterous crowds), the hotel rooms are virtually sound-proof.

Chops Grill Seafood & Steak has good fish despite the “meaty” name.  The four of us were interested in fish so when Andres, our concierge, recommended this restaurant, we weren’t sure. But he walked us over there, got us settled and let the staff take over.  We had delicious fish and good wine in an outdoor terrace.  And the meat dishes looked good too. 

 

THURS., 8 JUNE – SPLIT

Split private walking tour covered in 1.5 hours: Diocletian palace, Jupiter’s temple, Cathedral, Golden Gate, Understructures of Diocletian’s palace, and St. Dominus Bell Tower.

Diocletian Palace is an impressive survivor of the Roman era.  This palace, considered to be one of the most imposing and valuable Roman ruins along the Adriatic coast, is certainly the main attraction in Split. Emperor Diocletian, who voluntarily gave up the throne of the Roman Empire, built the palace complex—multiple buildings and storage below–and after his retirement in 305 A.D. then settled here, on the beach, in the Illyrian province of Rome, now part of Croatia. The understructures of Diocletian Palace provide insight into Roman Period but are now filled with souvenirs shops. Underneath the Palace complex is the level where the Roman Emperor used to pull up in his ship and step off to the main level of his home. It is no longer under the Adriatic Sea so it is interesting to see the structures that remain.

The Cathedral of St. Dominus, originally Diocletian’s octagonal-shaped mausoleum, became the town’sCathedral after the fall of the Roman Empire. Building the bell tower started in the 13th century and continued for 300 years. Ivan Mestrovic is Croatia’s equivalent of Rodin. His sculptures and statues grace the country of Croatia. Bishop Gregory of Nin, one pf his more famous statues, stands outside Diocletian’s Palace in Split. In the 10th century, Bishop Gregory tried to persuade the Pope to allow church services to be conducted in Croatian so the people would understand.

The rest of our day was free. Dinner was at Konoba Varos on the other side of town, where we ate outside listening to the noisy bell tower nearby.

 

FRI., 9 JUNE – SPLIT TO HVAR VIA JADROLINIJA FERRY (about 1 hour)

Hvar’s original inhabitants were migrants from the Greek Island of Paros in the 4th century BCE who created the settlement of Pharos, from which the name Hvar is derived. It too has been overrun like the rest of the former Yugoslavia, by Slavs, Venetians, Habsburgs and now tourists. It is a lovely island for relaxing, exploring the nearby Pakleni Islands, and traveling inland to the lavender fields and prolific (and happy!) vineyards.

On our own walk around the town of Hvar, we stopped at one of the more unique museum/shops, where on display are elaborate, intricate lace products. For nearly 120 years, the Benedictine nuns at the Benedictine Convent have been using strings from locally-grown agave cactus plants to painstakingly weave these amazing delicate patterns. In 2009 they were recognized by UNESCO.

Hotel Adriana was our hotel from the 9th—12th of June. This spa resort along the waterfront of Hvar Town, is an upscale, modern facility that is an easy walk from the ferry. Our rooms were also modern with lovely water views. One of us took advantage of the spa treatments available.

Before dinner, we climbed up to the Spanjola Fortress above Hvar Town. It was steep & winding to the top of the mountain, but the old fort was well-preserved and provided great views of the stunningly blue Adriatic Sea and structures around the island.

Gariful Fish Bistro, just a short walk along the waterfront near the ferry landing at Hvar Town and is this upscale bistro with an outdoor terrace and a sea view. We shared a huge 2-person platter of local fish and seafood, including prawns and lobster tails (spiny lobsters). Our friends shared the “scorpion fish” aka bream.

 

SAT., 10 JUNE – HVAR

Vis Island, Green Cave and Blue Cave by Private Speedboat Tour (8 hrs.) covered:  Blue cave, Green cave, Komiza village, Pakleni Archipelago, hidden beaches and bays.

We had to call Nickie, our guide/boat driver, to find where along the dock near our hotel he was located. He pulled up his Zodiac-type speedboat, we boarded and took off for the Island of Vis—about a 45-minute ride at top speed, bouncing over the waves. First we stopped at the Green Cave, but since the sky was overcast, the cave was rock-color, not a special green so we left after a few minutes. Once we arrived (with several other similar boats) at the Blue Cave, it was totally worth it. The sun, which emerged  for our visit, lit up the edge of the cave which in turn, created the magical blue lighting. If the weather had not been sunny, it would have been just another sea cave.

We ate lunch at Corora Stoncica, just off a pebble beach that served fillet-it-yourself fresh fish and interesting lamb stew. Then we took off again, bouncing on the building waves. Finally, Nickie suggested that we skip going around the Pakleni Islands nearby due to these waves. So, we spent the next hour over the rough seas, hoping not to feed the fish.  We happily and successfully reached Hvar port, and left the waves behind.  After we refreshed ourselves a bit, we went for a good pizza dinner (could only do Croatian food once a day) at Pizza Kago

 

SUN., 11 JUNE – HVAR

Today’s offroad inner island tour (8 hrs) with Ivor (& trainee), covered traditional villages, lavender fields, olive groves, and vineyards.

We stopped for lunch at Konoba Kod None, to eat our first taste of Peka-cooking.  One of the most popular meals in Croatia’s Dalmatian region is “peka, “a blend of vegetables (especially potatoes) and meat, drizzled with olive oil and herbs then baked for hours, often over a fire grill, under a bell-like metal dome. Four of us shared a lamb peka and veal peka that were so juicy and tasty (as long as you remember that meat here is often not aged/tenderized). We continued our drive through vineyards, the lavender fields, and a fortress.

Dinner at Mediterraneo was off Hvar’s promenade, where I had bream fish, which was simply prepared and totally delicious.

 

MON., 12 JUNE – HVAR TO DUBROVNIK 

Hvar to Dubrovnik on a catamaran ferry is the fastest and the most comfortable way to get to Dubrovnik.  We took a quick transfer uphill to our lovely, luxury Hotel Excelsior (12th – 16th June), which is uphill but convenient to busy Old Town. Our daughter had stayed here for the last few days of her honeymoon, so we stayed there for the last few days of our vacation. Because its location is a few blocks uphill from the busy Old Town, it’s quieter and has lovely views of the Adriatic and the city. 

At 2pm that afternoon, we took a Dubrovnik Private Walking Tour with our guide meeting us at Ploce Gates. It covered:  Old Town of Dubrovnik, Stradun, Orlando’s Column, St.Blaise Church, Cathedral, Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace, and the Franciscan Monastery.

Though many other Croatian cities are also built with limestone, Dubrovnik literally gleams white in the sunlight.  Typical of Croatia and surrounding countries, there are many influences on its history, dating back to its founding as Ragusa in 7th century.  Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, and Austral-Hungarian as well as the Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim religions have all influenced the culture. All of these themes are visible as you walk through Old Town of this absolutely beautiful city.

On a different note, when viewing the city from above the rooftops, it’s easy to note some of the roofs have bright red tiles and some are brownish-goldish-red. The bright red generally indicates that this new roof replaced one that was bombed during the 1990s war…

From the Middle Ages forward, Dubrovnik had an elaborate aqueduct system bringing water 7 miles from the surrounding mountains through the city, into what is known as Onofrio’s Big Fountain. Water is then dispersed throughout the city.

The main promenade in Dubrovnik’s Old Town is the Stradun, with its gleaming white buildings and paving stones (which get treacherous when wet!).  With shops, cafes, restaurants along this wide pedestrian mall and along narrow side streets, it is the place to see and be seen.

We climbed the winding steps and trail to the top of Mt. Srd to visit the old fortress, which had a wonderful photo exhibit about Dubrovnik during the “Homeland Wars” in the 1990s.  And the views were fabulous of the city, port, and beautifully blue Adriatic Sea.

Also of note, St. Lawrence’s Fort, on the coast behind old town Dubrovnik where some scenes of Kings Landing in Games of Thrones’ were filmed. The Fort of St. John is at one end of the port

Dubrovnik’s 12th century Cathedral was funded by Richard the Lionhearted when he was shipwrecked here while returning from the 3rd Crusade.

St. Blaise’s Church was dedicated to Dubrovnik’s patron, St. Blaise. All of his statues show him with the city of Dubrovnik in his left hand because legend has it that that a millennium ago he appeared in a local priest’s dream warning of an upcoming Venetian attack on the city. The priest went to city authorities who prepared for the eventual attack.  Apparently, locals have resented Venetians ever since. 

We enjoyed our fish dinner (I had bream again) at Moby Dick restaurant.

 

TUES., 13 JUNE – DUBROVNIK TO MONTENEGRO

Montenegro Private Tour (8+ hrs) covered: Kotor Bay, Old Town of Kotor, Island of Our Lady, and Perast.

We took a special day-trip (long!) from Dubrovnik to Montenegro to see the stunning-colored, long Bay of Kotor, with its blue- and green-colored water. There are many miles of coastline that have lovely views. The town of Kotor is pretty small, but plenty “to do:” including relaxation, beaches and water-sports. If a long day-trip is not appealing, there are nice hotels and restaurants.  And visiting mussel, oyster and clam farms then eating them on-site is a lovely way to spend part of a day.

On one side of the Bay that was supposed to remain forested, somehow a rich group of Russians–with or without the collusion of local government–literally scooped out the forest and the lower part of the mountainside to build a development of ugly cookie-cutter mansions. It is an eyesore and hopefully the city officials who turned a blind eye were fired—but probably not.

On our way home, we stopped at Skoljke Boke Mussel Farm for lunch. The owner and his wife showed us how they “grow” mussels and oysters, then prepared/cooked our lunch of both while we waited. They were literally pulled fresh from where we sat on their deck. Though their English was limited, the owner and wife were clearly delighted to teach us about their work and serve us delicious seafood.

When we arrived back in Dubrovnik after this long drive, we decided to have dinner in at Poliksar restaurant, in the port outside the city walls. It was fine but nothing special.

 

WED., 14 JUNE – DUBROVNIK TO BOSNIA, HERZEGOVINA

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina private tour (10 hrs) where we viewed the Pocitelj, Old Bridge, Neretva River, Mosque Koski Mehmed Pasal, Bazaar.

This small historic town is primarily fascinating for its unfortunate and still-evolving history. Mostar, spanning the deep valley of the Neretva River, developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier town, then further during 19th and 20th centuries under the Habsburgs. Mostar has long been known for its old Turkish houses and Old Bridge, Stari Most, after which it is named. In the 1990s’ war, however, most of the historic town and the Old Bridge, designed by the renowned architect Sinan, were destroyed. The Old Bridge was rebuilt in the decade after the 1990s war and many of the edifices in the Old Town have been restored or reconstructed with the contribution of an international scientific committee established by UNESCO. The Old Bridge area, with its pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean and western European architectural features, is an outstanding example of a multicultural urban settlement. The rebuilt Old Bridge–“Stari Most”and Old City of Mostar are symbols of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities. Despite the 2004 completion of Start Most’s re-building in the image of the original 16th century bridge, it does not bridge trust among neighbors.

While just a decade or so ago, Mostar’s battle scars were supposedly very obvious, during our visit to the “Old Town” we didn’t see the war’s ruins.  Apparently, those are further off the tourist-track.  The town itself is small, but its history is symbolic of so many of the problems of the culturally and religiously divided Bosnia (Muslim)-Herzegovina (Catholic) and the Republic of Serbska (an “independent” province that is Serbian Orthodox). Our young guide told us how the city, before “the wars” had been mixed ethnicities. Now it is split along ethnic lines. She said that the young people do not feel the hatred and conflict but the previous generations are stuck in the past, unwilling to accept their former neighbors and friends anymore. So still there are many un-healed war wounds.

The mostly tourist-y Old Bazaar Kujunkziluk occupies a long street that is lined with stalls that are generally filled with trinkets, jewelry, housewares, etc. that are poor relatives of what can be found in Turkey.  A few stalls have locally-created products (e.g., made of copper) but it is mainly a series of souvenir shops. We bought carefully where our local guide recommended!  And the stalls with hijab-covered, young women are mainly for show, not based on religious beliefs according to our young local guide.

For lunch, we intended to go to a restaurant which was full, so we ended at Timalrma where Stan, our guide, helped us ordered Cevapi (sausage+) of minced lamb & beef and large pita “somun.” Despite our ordering a “small-size” dish to share, we still had too much food—and boy, was it hearty and filling!

After the very long drive back to Dubrovnik, we went to Marco Polo for dinner, where I had mussels again.

 

THURS., 15 JUNE – DUBROVNIK – FREE DAY

On our last day, we did a strenuous but worth-it walk around Dubrovnik’s Old City WallsWe climbed up multi-storied steps & walked the whole city wall for over 1.2 miles. The views from this height toward the Adriatic, up to the fortress, and across the gleaming limestone city were glorious. The walls started as fortifications at the city’s founding in the 7th century, then were significantly built up from the 12th through 17th centuries, during which time no enemy ever breached them.

While Game of Thrones’ fans seek out spots in Dubrovnik where the show was filmed, we generally ignored that opportunity. We wandered the afternoon away shopping and appreciating the beautiful Old Town.

We ate at the upscale Proto restaurant first recommended by our concierge.  It was quite good and a fitting way to end our tasting tour of Croatia.

 

FRI., 16 JUNE – DUBROVNIK TO LONDON – overnight at Sofitel London Gatwick

SAT., 17 JUNE – LONDON TO HOME

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